By Michael J. Behm, Co-Chief Executive Officer & Principal
In a past blog, I wrote about several threshold questions that a government affairs manager should consider prior to making state and local Groups participation commitments – a checklist to better evaluate the Groups’ value proposition, if you will.
Another summer is now upon us and many of you are again planning your Groups commitments, scheduling travel to meetings and all the while trying to squeeze in some vacation with the family or friends, following the busy legislative session season. Dozens of state and local Groups will be meeting this summer between now and Labor Day, forcing you to make decisions about which Groups to engage and which of those meetings you can plan to attend.
One of my clients – whose government affairs program is re-organizing – was recently engaged in a budget and Groups planning exercise and was working from that checklist. Several more questions came up during that meeting about Groups participation that I thought were both blogworthy and timely to many of you as you plan your summer Groups travels:
How much should I pay to participate in a Group that I consider important to my program?
You should approach joining a Group as you would any other significant program investment. Working closely with the Groups staff, you should be able to outline your objectives and negotiate your participation in the Group or its activities, all the while working to ensure that you get an ROI on that commitment you are making. With most of the state and local Groups allowing some form of private sector participation, everything is usually negotiable when a membership is being considered.
But you should first have a firm grasp on the deliverables you need from the Group. I know many well-intentioned, smart government affairs professionals in this business who join Groups at relatively high commitment levels without first knowing what they really want to do with the Group. It happens. Write a check and hope that staff deliver for you down the road – sometimes that approach is successful, other times the ambiguity leads to problems and expectations that cannot be met. Knowing the deliverables you need for your program, and insisting on them in return for your participation fee, is the key to negotiating your entrance into any of the Groups. This approach benefits the Groups too – most of the Groups staff want to pitch you on the value they can return to your program and negotiating serves to set their expectations. It also makes the experience more transactional for your internal leadership and colleagues.
Cost factors then come into play. More access to Groups’ leadership or key officials typically requires an additional commitment, especially with those Groups that place a premium on providing access to leadership or to key state or local markets. But participation costs can also be driven by the support (or handholding) you might need from staff to realize your particular Group objectives, presentation opportunities that you secure, availability of research, tools or resources and exhibition opportunities at the larger meetings. Just remember, these Groups all have bills to pay too.
And I sometimes suggest to a client that they begin their participation with a new Group at a commitment level that is lower than they can afford. Evaluate what the Group can deliver at that lower level and then make changes if you need to. You can always grow your participation in a Group, spend more money and resources and get involved with more programming. But it can be a major problem for you – and to feelings in general – if you have to backpedal on a higher commitment with a Group if a budget changes or expectations are not met.
How should I evaluate Groups meetings that do not include my priorities on their agendas?
I’ve got clients, and know of others in our government affairs universe, who sometimes have trouble justifying attending a Groups meeting at which their priorities or issues – good or bad – are not part of the agenda. I am not talking about the meeting in which something was supposed to be scheduled and wasn’t (in which case you might have a problem), but rather the meeting at which nothing of interest to you happens to be on the program.
Of course, you can always use that as an opportunity to sit out the meeting – stay home and go to the next event. But I see such meetings as being valuable to your Groups outreach efforts if approached the right way. Remember, participating in these meetings can serve a variety of internal purposes, such as influencing or monitoring an issue or supporting a presentation, but it also has the dual purpose of demonstrating to the Group and its members that you and your organization are a stakeholder in their process. Sometimes just your presence at a meeting can mean a lot to the right leaders and staff – it can serve to build credibility and trust.
Take the time at the meeting to focus on the members and leaders. Use the forum to build on your relationship network and offer your help to them as a technical or expert resource or the political capital of your organization. And build on your relationships with the staff – I’ve written before that the staff of these Groups are often the most overlooked influentials within any of these organizations. Spend time with them.
Finally, use the meeting to collect intelligence about the Group’s future actions, leadership shifts and perhaps action on your priorities which, while not being discussed at the current meeting, might be the subject of a future opportunity for you.
Should I participate in the leadership of a Group (if invited)?
Of course, the more leaders, members and staff you know, and can help, within a Group, the more likely you will be viewed as a valuable stakeholder. And as a valuable stakeholder, it is more likely that senior staff or leadership might invite you to join the leadership of its advisory board, finance committee, foundation or private sector governing council. This can be a very good thing – another opportunity to develop working relationships with the elected leadership of Groups that can be leveraged back in the state capitals or at the local government level; build on your bona fides as a committed stakeholder in their organization and causes; help fundraise for the Group; and help to shape the agendas of the Groups’ meetings and issue and policy sessions.
All upside, right?
Well yes – it can be – if you remember that a leadership commitment can be a tremendous stress on your, and your program’s, bandwidth. Many (probably most) of these positions are more than ceremonial and there is usually an expectation of real work that will be performed and it is often a commitment that a smaller program cannot afford. The time commitment can be especially problematic during the busier legislative session months. Frequently, a leadership position leads to more asks from the Group for resources and money and most of these leadership councils have a fundraising responsibility for the Group. This is always a challenge in a climate of tight budgets.
Given all of this, it is important to manage internal expectations about such leadership invitations. Discuss the commitments with your superiors, colleagues and program stakeholders within your organization. Share both the pros and cons of the efforts the Groups will demand of you. Find opportunities to involve your senior leadership, such as business managers, presidents and CEOs in visible ways within the Group, at its meetings and with its members. Ultimately, you want to use the opportunity to raise your organization’s profile while serving in what can be a visible and valuable leadership position.
How is Social Media Changing the Groups?
More Groups – like elected officials – are now using their online presence and social media channels to share content, message to their members, the media and advocates and to generally raise awareness about policymaking and policy issues. We all place a real premium on attending the Groups meetings as a way to reach policymakers and build relationships, but leveraging the social media the Groups are using – both during the meetings and in between – cannot be overlooked as a means to reach those officials important to you.
It is safe to say these days that almost every state and local official has a Facebook or Twitter account – many also have blog posts – and they use them to express opinions, observations, ruminate about meetings, etc. At most Groups meetings, you will find policymakers and staff in the sessions and the hallways tweeting (and retweeting) and looking at, and posting on, Facebook as meetings unfold. Many of the larger Groups meetings are now integrated with social media channels to ensure maximum reach to both attendees in the conference center and those participating virtually at their PC and even via their smartphones.
The pressure is on staff to constantly develop and share content. Groups such as NCSL generate dozens of tweets and at least one blog – sometimes two – each day. Working with these staff, policy committees, task forces and the leadership and resourcing them with content and ideas helps them and can also help you express your message through their channels. Discuss information needs with the staff as you meet with them. Monitor their blog postings and tweets to identify the issues they are most interested in communicating. Create content that these Groups will want to share; Groups staff are interested in most of the same policy issues you are interested in.
Incorporating any of this advice into your Groups program requires some thoughtful planning and preparation – these are the key elements of any successful Groups program. And as you consider your summer Groups travel, keep in mind that the work you perform in-between meetings with these Groups, their leadership and staff is just as critical to the success of your program.